Three movie directors with too much hype

July 26, 2007

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I sometimes wonder how it is that certain movie directors earn enough cachet in Hollywood to become name brands. Sure, I can understand the idea of a "name brand" being applied to the likes of Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese or a dozen others — although it should be noted that Spielberg is more of a "brand" (because of his mainstream appeal) whereas Scorsese is more of a guy who is thought of as a famous and respected director rather than a "brand."

Such directors who have "brand name" status often get their name put right into the marketing campaign, for example: "A Steven Spielberg film" or "Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York." These are well-established directors who have earned the reputation and right to have their name prominently displayed along with the title.

But then there are directors-turned-brands that I just don't at all understand. Or in some cases, I might understand it, but I don't necessarily like it. Let's take a look at the three that stand out in my mind.

Michael Bay

Michael Bay started to become famous in the mid 1990s after the release of Bad Boys and The Rock. I'm pretty sure that by the time Armageddon came around — which, let's face it, is what really solidified his reputation at the box office — Bay's name was being said in the marketing campaign: "Armageddon. A Michael Bay film."

Granted, Michael Bay might be the most deserving of recent directors to achieve this status. Because, for better or worse, when you see a Michael Bay movie, you KNOW it's a Michael Bay movie. His style is unmistakable. Sometimes laughable, and sometimes annoying like a hammer to the head, maybe, but unmistakable nonetheless.

Bay arrived from uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer's school of film, where the virtues are to be loud, flashy, superficial, and "polished" to an almost ridiculous excess. Bruckheimer has employed a host of directors in the 1990s and 2000s that all went to the same school — Tony Scott, Simon West, several others — but probably none have quite the same notoriety as Bay, who has surpassed even Bruckheimer in terms of his overwrought reputation.

Armageddon was borderline unwatchable because of the camera that never, ever stopped moving and the constant, constant edits (every 1 to 2 seconds), the way-overdone slow-motion, and the general need for every shot to look like it was trying to ooze cinematic polish. After a while, it becomes ridiculous. You aren't watching a movie, you're watching a trailer. Roger Ebert put it best when he called Armageddon "the first 150-minute trailer." Yes, that's it exactly.

With, The Island, Bay proved he could settle down. The first half of that movie was as restrained as anything from a reasonable director, although the second half was A MICHAEL BAY FILM, with cars flipping through the air and shit blowing up, etc., and a camera with a visual style that was unmistakably BAY.

Similarly, the entertaining Transformers was able to dial it down during its comedy scenes before turning into A MICHAEL BAY FILM in the last half-hour of more-than-meets-the-eye robo-mayhem.

Bay is probably one of the most successful directors currently working. But I bet it's safe to say that most people regard him as an engine for loud, soulless summer fun. He's hyped not because he's a good director or because he has any taste, but because he's the hired gun you call in to make over-the-top popcorn flicks with lots of action and special effects and no characters.

I'm not even going to mention Pearl Harbor — whoops, just did.

M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan is like the polar opposite of Michael Bay. Here's a guy whose movies, in their film techniques, embody the very notion of less being more. The style worked well in The Sixth Sense, which had the storytelling and emotional content to go along with its last-scene twist, which was really quite brilliant in its understated way.

The problem with Shyamalan is that he obviously read too much of his own press after The Sixth Sense was the smash success that it was, and ever since then he's become the proverbial Emperor With No Clothes. I believe that Shyamalan is a good director and that he means well; he has an uncanny way of creating slow dread with objects that creep into the camera frame. I also believe that he has allowed his arrogance to catch up with him. Aside from The Sixth Sense, all of his films up to and including Signs were merely average; I could respect them for their restraint and atmosphere but cannot recommend them for their storytelling, particularly not the way they ended so inadequately.

But with The Village, Shyamalan jumped the proverbial shark. Shortly before its release there was a completely vain Sci-Fi Channel mockumentary called "The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan," which was an example of a director not merely toying with his audience, but toying with the behind-the-scenes footage for his audience. As for The Village itself — talk about a turgid experience. The "secret" to The Village constitutes one of the lamest (not to mention predictable) plots of the decade. The Village — and indeed much of Shyamalan storytelling — owes itself to low-rent "Twilight Zone" and deserves no more screen time. Instead we get a bloated, two-hour "period piece" called The Village.

And don't get me started on Lady in the Water, perhaps the most pretentious vanity project I've ever seen. Shyamalan has been allowed to call all his movies "M. Night Shyamalan's [whatever]" and, frankly, he hasn't earned it. He's a decent director who has only made one really memorable movie, in my opinion, because he is plagued by poor decision-making at the script level. He should take some advice and, well, start taking advice. Disney didn't like his script for Lady in the Water (with good reason, in my opinion) and Shyamalan subsequently left the studio. He made the movie anyway, and it was a flop, which for some reason made me glad. I'm not sure why; maybe because it just struck me as being so misguided that I was rooting for common sense and against the brand recognition of a movie titled "M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water."

Why did I even see Lady in the Water, you ask? Because my girlfriend made me. I hadn't planned on it based on the reviews, and I had already learned my lesson from The Village.

Brett Ratner

Here's the most inexplicable of directors whose names have somehow become brands. Brett Ratner, best known for directing the Rush Hour films, somehow obtained brand recognition after the first Rush Hour, which was the epitome of passable but utterly forgettable entertainment. How or why anyone thinks "Directed by Brett Ratner" should be said on any of those ads is completely beyond me, and yet, there you have it: "Rush Hour 3. Directed by Brett Ratner." It just annoys me that the commercial voice-over guy goes out of his way at the end, every single time, to say, "Directed by Brett Ratner." I want to respond back "WHO CARES."

Ratner strikes me as the very definition of a hack. He makes movies, and there's nothing whatsoever to suggest that the vision behind the film is his own. He's a placeholder. Could be anybody. A franchise like Rush Hour sort of lends itself to that treatment. (Who cares who directs it? It's Rush Hour, for crissakes.)

Some were incensed that Ratner was hired to direct X-Men 3. I didn't much care, because the way I see it, Ratner is competent and can direct a movie, and hacks are well-suited for sequels where there's already a firm template and tone.

And believe it or not, I have absolutely nothing against Ratner as a director.

But what I don't understand is how "Directed by Brett Ratner" has become a catchphrase for any trailer for a film that he made directed. Did somebody (perhaps Ratner himself) decide at some point that for any film he directed he WOULD be included in the marketing? How does such a decision get made? With a resume as short as Ratner's (and there are many, many directors out there with far more credits and far less name-dropping in trailers) what kind of hubris does it take to decide that BRETT FREAKING RATNER is going to become a director whose name will become the signature for a film?

So there you have it. My top-three over-hyped directors. And all for different reasons.

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13 comments on this post

    I've had to sit through an edited version of this ad for I don't know how long whenever I'm getting my Stewart/Colbert fix. Who this would inspire to attend the NYFA, I have no idea.

    Michael Bay is hit or miss, but the Rock remains one of my all time favorite movies, at least in the action genre. The other two can suck a dick, though.

    Hmmm. I enjoyed sixth sense, although 'the twist' wasn't a twist as you see what happens in the first scene as it blatantly obvious the whole way through. But I liked the style. Unbreakable too I liked, but it lacked a certain something. Village I didn't care for. There was just something about it that I wanted to keep at arms length. I enjoyed Signs, it had kids that weren't (too) annoying and Mel put on a good subdued show. Lady in the water: I kind of liked it. I liked the performances, I liked the fact that it wasn't important (if she died, then so what?). I liked the film critic and his analysis which is just what most people watching the film would have thought about these characters as they were introduced. Sure, it was no Sixth Sense, but hey... Brett Ratner. Yup, couldn't agree more. I somewhat enjoyed Rush Hour (Always good to see Mark Rolston, been a fan of his since Drake in Aliens and his role in Shawshank). Rush Hour 2 was terrible, and the thought of a third film is crazy (Presumably Jackie Chan will combat the bad guys with his Zimmer?) Red Dragon and Xmen3 I have yet to see,but I agree, where the hell does he get the 'right' to have his name in the title? At least John Carpenter earned that right with Halloween, Escape From New York, The Fog (I love that film), Precint 13, The Thing. Ok so he has done nothing since except Big Trouble in Little China which I used to hate but now love. But Carpenter set a benchmark, so deserves it. Ratner's claim to fame is killing off the X-franchise, an unnecessary remake, and Rush Hour. Adding "A Brett Ratner Film" to a trailer would just make me go "Who?" and then look it up, and then laugh at the marketing 'genius' that came up with it. I could probably name a dozen directors without thinking too hard that deserve the 'right' more then him. Although the ones that make me laugh are "From the makers of..." and you find out those 'makers' are the catering crew and costume designers.

    You're looking at this from the wrong direction... I'm glad that these directors make it clear when they are reponsible for a movie, that way I can stay well clear!

    Well, the problem with Ratner directing X3 was that Bryan Singer managed to make X2 an even better film than the first one was. If Singer had stayed with the franchise, he possibly could've made an even better film. Ratner made a movie that was just about as good as Rush Hour 2. And Singer showed that he didn't nearly have the touch for Superman that he had for the X-Men. As for The Village, I liked it. I didn't like it as a suspense film, or a horror film, or a sci-fi film. I liked it as a romance. The film clearly was most concerned with the romance between Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix - it was the impetus for her flight out of the Village. And I thought that romance was beautifully depicted and quite touching. The problem with Shyamalan's films is that he seems to feel the need to include a "twist" ending, for whatever reason. I think the more films he makes, the more each twist feels unnecessary - Signs was a sci-fi comedy, The Village was a romance, Lady in the Water was a fable. I agree that he does seem awfully arrogant. But really, in Hollywood, who doesn't? The arrogance is most apparent in Lady in the Water, where he plays the brilliant writer, and the dumb movie critic is wrong about everything. But at the same time, I thought the film contained a real sense of wonderment and excitement, just like a child's bedtime story should have. I didn't think it was the best movie ever, but I definitely think it succeeded for the most part with what it was trying to do. And Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard (again) were terrific. I know with ever passing movie, Shyamalan's going to find it harder to make movies, because fewer and fewer people are going to see his movies. But I'm still looking forward to his next film. Even his bad movies are never uninteresting, I think.

    "You’re looking at this from the wrong direction… I’m glad that these directors make it clear when they are reponsible for a movie, that way I can stay well clear!" He he, nice. There is an article in Empire this month, that I read mere minutes after Jammer's rant/article. It is titled: "Just who the hell does Brett Ratner think he is?" Unfortunately, it is actually an article praising the director. And I just cannot see what he has done to deserve a 5-page spread in Empire. On the other hand, they have interviewed everyone else in the universe, so maybe they are running out of people... Also, in the same issue that have a big feature on Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl, so maybe... (No, I am not going to go there).

    Shyamalan is a one trick pony and Unbreakable and Sixth Sense are the only decent things he has done. If he never made another movie the film industry wouldn't mourn his loss. I don't mind Bay or Ratner, though. Good popcorn flick directors. They've also made studios a lot of money and the studios are the ones dishing the hype, I imagine.

    Another thing about Shyamalan is because his films so often hinge on a surprising twist, these films are only good (if they're good at all) the first time round. Sixth Sense, his best movie by far, is proof of this. I've only seen it once, and I don't think I'll see it again. It's ephemera. I still need to see the Rock and Rush Hour, but I did see X-Men 3 and Transformers...Karl Rove has more soul than these films (although the latter was admittedly funny at times.) A side note...From a design standpoint Bruck himself probably has one of the best brands even though he's just a's just a tree that gets struck by lightning and blooms. This is so identifiable his logo no longer requires any text.

    I hate all of you with the burning passion of five thousand really hot suns. Like seriously, I'm talking suns that make our humble sol look like an easy bake oven light bulb. I love M. Night Shyamalan. Yeah that's right. I went there. I used the 'L' word, and I'm not at all ashamed. I'm tired of reading stupid review after stupid review of his movies. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs are three of my favorite movies. I love the way he creates characters. And guess what I liked The Village also. . In fact it's also one of my favorite movies (somewhere I just made a kitten cry, but I still don't care). Why did I like it? People always talk about the lame monsters and the 'twist', but I don't give a rat's ass about those things. What I love about the Village is that, for me, it's about the people. The theme of someone sacrificing everything to help someone they love. I'm sorry, it moved me. In fact what I love about all M. Night movies is that they are always more about the people then they are about whatever the 'big' thing would be if someone else was telling the story. It's the way that Signs isn't really about the aliens and Unbreakable isn't at all about having super powers and The Sixth Sense is not about ghosts. I love that and it annoys me that everyone else is too caught up talking about those things to get their heads out of their behinds. Bah! You can all go suck on a shoe! Yeah, a shoe that's been soaking in turpentine...and is on fire! P.S. Lady in the Water had major weaknesses, but that doesn't change the fact that it also had real strengths. P.P.S. Isn't calling something a 'vanity' project stupid? How is it anymore a vanity project then anything else? Because Disney turned down the idea? That's stupid--stories get turned down all the time. A good writer keeps on submitting until they get it published. It's like rule one of getting published. Or were you referring to the fact he told it to his children? Again stupid logic. The Hobbit was told to Tolkien's children. My point is, he believed it was a good story. He created it with this belief. That's all any creator can do. Is there anything more vain then deciding something you've created is interesting to other people? Probably not, but every writer, director, whatever is guilty of it. Every work of art ever made is a vanity project, ergo your use of it as a slander is silly and badly worded.

    ^ I just want to second that. I think Shyamalan's films are greatly misunderstood. It NEVER was about the twists in the first place.

    Shyamalan's "twists at the end" are better looked at, I think, as role reversals, or even better, awakenings (to use a pretty portentous, Shyamalan-y word). And I dig his movies. I've actually liked The Village the most... and I think The Sixth Sense was way overrated for its awakening, as it didn't seem to matter as much to Willis' character as it did to the audiences which went whoa and started nominating for academy awards. All of his films have marvellous visual detail in simplicity and sweet little moments of something's-wrong-just-outside-of-the-frame suspense that brilliantly string one along. I think it helps to not think too much about his plots, though, at least not rationally as much as emotionally, or perhaps: childishly. He writes little fables. I care enormously for his protagonists and tend to really dig the kinds of questions he asks. However, the problem he has with critics gets to me, too. His lack of detailed justification in his films for some of the leaps of reason and rational thinking that people make in Signs and Lady and Unbreakable drives audiences away, and makes both me and them mad. His audiences get mad because he's playing games with our ability to leap with him. Him and his aliens allergic to water, people who are all secretly a part of a fantasy to inspire greatness in humanity and willing to believe it, too... Him and his comic book heroes and villains alive and angsty. Him and his village of escapists who maybe should stay escaped. Can it last forever, that escape? Can it work? Can anything in any of his films really work? He's a Hitchcockian suspense builder without the sense for ordinary adult intrigues, interested so much more in some very child-like awakenings and fantasies. I love his movies, and I think he's only getting better at making them accessible to those of us willing really make his leaps with him. Lady in the Water was actually pretty wonderful in what it was saying about how we all have gifts we are given and how it's up to us to choose to use them and explore them. And why doesn't anyone else understand from seeing that movie that Story was going be a leader of her own people, about to go off and inspire millions of people, by inspiring thousands of Narfs? Anyway... I agree on Michael Bay (particularly since the man's best thing is what he used to and he didn't really ever stop with his films, and that's beer and car commercials... think about it: all of his movies are exactly what make up beer and car commercials...). And Brett Ratner hasn't really done anything great yet... so yes, I agree that he's not worth the hubbub, bub, but why rant on these guys, anyway? So many people have had recognizable names as made as brands who didn't really deserve it... But Shyamalan, even if you don't like his films, doesn't belong on your list, I think, because he's such an auteur. His films are exactly in his vision and not the list bit unoriginal. His moniker makes perfect sense to be attached. And he's going to be making the the Avatar: The Last Airbender (a brilliant Nickelodeon show... well, the second season was brilliant, anyway) trilogy of live action films... so I gotta give him some more faith for that!

    Regarding Matt L. and his somewhat inflammatory post above: "Every work of art ever made is a vanity project, ergo your use of it as a slander is silly and badly worded." First, since we're dealing with published words here, I think the word you're looking for is libel. Second, it's not libel if it's true. I think the label "vanity project" fits Lady in the Water to a tee. Can YOU think of a phrase that would more aptly describe a film in which the writer/director not only has a cameo, but does so as a character whose thoughts are fated to cause great changes in the world? And where a character who is clearly meant as a stand-in for everyone who has ever criticized Shyamalan meets an unpleasant fate? I mean, come on...when you not only "Mary Sue" yourself into your own story, but then actually have the brass TO PLAY THAT CHARACTER, while simultaneously killing a straw man fashioned out of every negative review you ever deserved, what animal could be your avatar (pun intended) other than a peacock? Let's look at a (more or less) complete filmography: The Sixth Sense: Simply brilliant. Unbreakable: Brilliant-er, in my opinion. Signs: A mixed bag that went from better to worse as time wore on. The Village: Trite situation, but with good characterization. Lady in the Water: Good God. I'm sorry I paid to see it. The Happening: There was more happening in the title than the film. So he's made two and a half brilliant films, plus some isolated moments in The Village. And he was complicit in a fake documentary that was, if anything, even more vain than his fable fiasco. I suppose this gives him a better gold-to-crap ratio than Ed Wood, but Kurosawa he ain't. And the trend line for his film quality seems to have dipped sharply downward with the passage of time. With any luck, he'll stay away from typewriters, word processors, computers, and the like in future--at least for a while. (Maybe POLISH your next script for a few years, hmm, M. Night?) He really does have a hell of an eye for composition, and I think he'll be remembered far better if he sticks to the visual side of things, where he can be an unchallenged and beloved genius.

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